Ramasamy Madhavan is a construction site engineer.

The migrant worker is also a poet, a writer and now, a filmmaker.

The 29-year-old has spent the last four and a half years in Singapore, or “1,690 days” as he plaintively describes it, working to send a salary back home in Tamil Nadu to his father to help build the family residence.

Last year, he premiered a short film, $alary Day, which depicts a day in the life of a migrant worker in Singapore. The stark 13-minute film, which features little dialogue, focuses its attention on the seemingly mundane details of a migrant worker’s life.

At the start of the film, we meet an unnamed migrant worker, played by Madhavan, as he wakes up, brushes his teeth, has his breakfast, just like any one of us. The differences start to appear when he checks his bank balance to show a sum of $450 – his salary.

We are then taken to the hustle and bustle of Little India where he withdraws his entire salary and queues up (the film was shot pre-Covid) to remit most of it home. Whatever that is left, he has to divide between his monthly necessities, an international direct dialing card to call home and… poignantly, has to make a decision whether to have a meal or cut his hair.

The film ends with the worker sitting in a park, hungry but with a fresh haircut, talking to his mother in India, asking her if she has eaten or not. As he walks off into the evening twilight, we are told that his plight is one of many migrant workers in Singapore. That they are left with very little for themselves after they pay off their dues.

The simplicity of the shots communicate a cruel truth, that many Singaporeans simply don’t realise the struggles and choices that migrant workers have to undertake in the face of exhausting labour.

Lifestyle choices of a migrant worker

When approached by The Pride, Madhavan, who wrote, acted and directed $alary Day, says that he sends all of his pay back home to his dad and keeps around $100 for monthly expenses.

But within 10 days after getting his monthly pay, he would find himself broke with no money left on hand for the remaining 20 days.

“I calculated the amount I spent in the first 10 days. Everything I spent was reasonable,” says Madhavan.

Even as an S-pass (Short-Term Employment Pass, which is given to foreigners working in skilled or specialist positions) holder, Madhavan says that he faces the struggles of living in Singapore after supporting his family members back home. That led him to wonder how the average migrant worker who earns $18 per day could manage at all.

Madhavan explains: “I just calculated how they spend their salary and start subtracting the amount from $450…family expenses, paying back agent fees or interest on bank loans, mobile calling card top-ups, soap and toiletries…”

With his dogged intention to show the tough choices migrant workers working here have to make, Madhavan had a clear script in mind for his film. All he needed was people to help shoot his video.

Thankfully, says Madhavan, a friend, a fellow migrant worker poet Zakir put him in touch with a Singaporean videographer and editor Ho Say Peng. With Say Peng on board and with his digital equipment, Madhavan completed the shoot in two Sundays with the help of his friends Kumar and Santosh as extras.

It is, says Madhavan, the first collaboration between migrant workers and Singaporeans on a project like this.

The cinema poster for $alary Day was created by Judith Tong, a Singaporean. Image source: R Madhavan

It was screened at The Projector and several other venues when it was first released and Madhavan decided to put it up on YouTube as well to garner more views.

In an earlier interview with Sinema.sg, Say Peng says: “Since we wanted to create a very realistic film, we adopted a documentary style approach to filming. It’s as if the film isn’t fiction, but a slice of life documentary.

This film was created before Covid-19 and the intent was to share the marginalised stories of these workers.”

He added that he believed the real way for filmmakers to give voice to the voiceless is to help and support them in finding their own voices.

But the decision to do the film with Madhavan was for another, simpler reason, he tells The Pride. He says: “I wanted to help my friend. After hearing the script, I liked it very much and agreed to help. It was a fun experience and regardless of our status and background, everyone should respect each other.”

Madhavan says that the team was fortunate to meet friendly shop owners who allowed them to use their premises. Though the set up for the shoot was simple (a single digital camera), it still drew attention, with people asking what they were shooting for, and even what the storyline was!

The team also decided to keep the original background audio to keep the movie more grounded and gritty.

Hearing their voices

Head of Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach Samuel Lim tells the Pride: “Guest workers have had a positive impact on our country, building our city to what it is today.

“I love honest stories, it helps us work together with clarity on how to build a better tomorrow… It is in unity that we can effectively build a stronger city for all.”

When asked what migrant workers needed the most in Singapore, Madhavan replies: “Food is the basic need to feel happy.

But money is the key reason they are here. He explains that many migrant workers in Singapore spend their days off in their dorms to save money and avoid unnecessary expenses.

He says: “I have not visited (tourist) favourite spots in Singapore such as the Singapore Flyer or Marina Bay Sands in my days here.”

This focus on money goes right down to the nitty-gritty, he says. He highlights in particular the challenge that many migrant workers face in maintaining a bank account.

“Don’t cut the monthly $2 from their bank account when they are not maintaining $500 as a minimum balance. When they earn $450 or less than $500. How can they maintain $500 (in the account)? Even a single $1 also makes a difference.”

Madhavan also recognises that while the standards of living have increased over the years, migrant workers’ salaries have not risen in comparison, which presents a huge challenge to them.

He says: “In 1990, when a migrant worker worked one day and earned $18, he could buy 1g of gold. Now in 2021, a migrant worker needs to work for one week at the same $18 per day basic salary to buy that same 1g of gold.”

He adds that like many migrant workers, he has a dream that he is working towards.

“I have a script in my hand to do short films but it’s tough for me to allot time for it and find the right people. I am thankful to Singapore for my job opportunities. I love Singapore. But I don’t want to be in Singapore for too long.”

If you have any thoughts or suggestions to help, do write in to us at https://pride.kindness.sg/your-say.

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Top Image: Ramasamy Madhavan